Fewer key players, South Korea seek to book World Cup spot against Lebanon

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With or without their captain and best player, South Korea will look to extend their World Cup appearance streak to 10 with a win against Lebanon when the final Asian qualifying round resumes this week.

South Korea travel to Sidon for their Group A match against Lebanon at Saida Municipal Stadium on Thursday. Kick-off is at 2:00 p.m. local time, or 9:00 p.m. in South Korea.

With six out of 10 matches on the line in the current round, South Korea sit second in Group A with 14 points, two behind Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are third with six points.

There are two groups of six in the final round. The top two nations from each group will earn automatic berths for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while the third-place teams will face off in a playoff for the right to participate later in the Intercontinental Qualifiers of the last chance.

Given the gap between them and the UAE, South Korea can lock in at least the second seed in the group with a combination of their win over Lebanon and the UAE’s loss or draw against Syria on Thursday. If they can’t get the job done this time, South Korea’s next opportunity will come next Tuesday against Syria.

South Korea have played in every World Cup since 1986 in Mexico.

And South Korea will likely have to do it without Son Heung-min, the team’s longtime captain who was sidelined for a few weeks after suffering a leg injury while playing for Tottenham Hotspur.

South Korea boss Paulo Bento has hoped Son will somehow be available for the national team, but Tottenham do not expect Son to return before the international break in early February .

Bento will be missed by fellow South Korean Premier League player Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hwang has been out since December with a hamstring injury, and he too is unlikely to be back until South Korea’s two games.

In their first final round meeting in September, South Korea beat Lebanon 1-0 after Kwon Chang-hoon scored. It came on the heels of an utterly uninspiring goalless draw against Iran.

South Korea, however, have been a vastly superior team since their wobbly start in the final round. They won a 1-1 draw away to Iran in October, then shut out the United Arab Emirates 1-0 and Iraq 3-0 in November. They were patient and methodical in attack and airtight in defence.

The pattern held in two recent friendly wins over Iceland and Moldova during a training camp in Turkey. Bento took 25 players from South Korea’s K League and two more from Japan’s J. League to Antalya on January 9, giving new faces extended looks in those two matches and around two weeks of training sessions.

The Europe-based stars mid-season were ineligible for the camp but are available for the World Cup qualifiers. Bento named five European players and one Qatari for the occasion. In a corresponding move, Bento removed seven K Leaguers from his camp roster.

Of the quintet from Europe, Hwang Ui-jo of FC Girondins de Bordeaux just scored his first career hat trick in France on Sunday.

In defence, Fenerbahce centre-back Kim Min-jae is expected to bring his usual excellence on the backline alongside his trusted partner Kim Young-gwon.

The players settled in Istanbul ahead of a trip to Lebanon, but a severe snowstorm in the city prevented any training on the pitch and limited the players to training sessions on bikes and treadmills in the hall sports from their hotel on Monday. They will be stuck indoors for Tuesday morning’s session, the Korea Football Association announced. (Yonhap)

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